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Do Aspiring Women Need Special Treatment?

26/03/2014 10:54 GMT | Updated 25/05/2014 10:59 BST

Women's History Month and International Women's Day -- March certainly has been a month for women. But do we want to be feted for 31 days if our concerns are then forgotten? Conversely, why the special treatment?

I don't want to decry the importance of such celebrations, but I think we're moving into a new era.

We haven't got it quite right yet. I still hear many women talking about the need to find balance between high-powered jobs and the other aspects of their lives. Women still need a hand because in some industries, it's like going back to the Ark.

Quotas for women on boards are increasingly in favour. As one Australian businesswoman puts it: "I agree with the principle of meritocracy but we don't have one." Equal pay remains a political hot potato, with former US president Jimmy Carter recently comparing it to racial discrimination.

Becoming a risk-taker

But what I think we should celebrate is stepping out of our comfort zone. I've been inspired recently by the extraordinary Liz Jackson of Great Guns Marketing, who spoke at our most recent Women in Leadership salon. She was truly humbling to be around, and is an incredible role model. Liz is blind, although that was something we quickly forgot as she talked about running an extraordinarily successful business. Funny and engaging, she's a glass-half-full person, both kind and ballsy -- a wonderful mixture. There's no self-pity, but instead a strong spiritual grounding that came through loud and clear.

How did she get to where she is now? In part, because she paid attention to every part of herself as she grew her business. And she stepped outside her comfort zone often -- not just professionally, but personally. Bungee jumping is just one example. On being asked to speak with the late Steve Jobs, she thought the organisers must've got it wrong, and although she was intimidated by the incredible speakers she had to follow, she stepped up -- and got a standing ovation.

Her advice to aspiring women is to exude a positive inner language: if you think you can, you can; if you think you can't, you won't. That self-belief has clearly been key for Jackson, but it's not always easy to come by.

A recent Amex survey of female entrepreneurs is revealing: only 26 percent rated their delegating skills as 'excellent'; likewise their negotiating skills. (Do we rate anything we do as 'excellent', I wonder.) The vast majority rarely or never seek business advice from a formal board and 34 per cent claim their networking skills are fair to poor.

So some of us need to work on our confidence, competence and connections. But we're entering an era when we can take more responsibility for our own behaviour, stepping towards power and taking more risks on our own behalf, and for others. Take a leaf from Gloria Steinem, who encouraged women to "think big, unite and use our power".

Finding a champion

One way to do this is to encourage 'enabled sponsorship' in organisations. Eversheds chairman John Heaps is among those who see it as making a "significant impact" for women.

Sponsorship schemes allow promising women to work with corporate champions, who actively put growth opportunities in their way and lobby on their behalf. Author and academic Sylvia Ann Hewlett advocates sponsorship as your 'ticket to the top'. Cisco, Ernst & Young and Citibank have sponsorship programmes for women, with HR identifying the candidates -- whether they are just below C-suite or (preferable, I think) from any position in the organisation. Sponsors differ from mentors in that they are more active on behalf of the women they support.

They also differ slightly from 'high potential' talent development, simply in that those programmes have thus far seemed to leave women behind.

Giving women a leg up may seem like favouritism, but women have to do their part. You get there on your merit, and you also have to step up and make yourself 'visible'. It carries some responsibility: it's no good giving women opportunities if they fail to run with them.

Women do often suffer the consequences of waiting until they are perfectly qualified before going after plum roles, whereas men seem less concerned. So we need to find ways of making the mental switch from 'I'm not quite ready' to 'I'll give it a try'.

We need to start the ball rolling somehow. Women themselves may baulk at the idea of special treatment, but we need to do something to build a case for women in leadership. Ultimately, sponsorship schemes should be open to men, too. But let's establish precedents and create some visible role models for aspiring women leaders.

Different periods of time call for different measures, and right now, what we need is something that will encourage the rest of us, like Jackson, to make that leap -- whatever the month.